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Poseidon misadventure: Bad songs rob ‘Lightning Thief’ of all its joy

Chris McCarrell stars as the title character in the national touring production of "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical." | Jeremy Daniel

Chris McCarrell stars as the title character in the national touring production of "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical." | Jeremy Daniel

Not every story needs to be turned into a musical, the same way not every story needs to be a movie, and Rick Riordan’s best-selling 2005 young adult novel “The Lightning Thief” is the perfect example. Riordan’s modern-day story of young Perseus “Percy” Jackson, half-god son of Poseidon, was adapted into a movie in 2010. The result was — what’s the right way to put this —extremely bad.

Likewise, 2017 saw “The Lightning Thief” adapted into a full-out rock musical awkwardly titled “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.” And judging from the production that’s currently launching its national tour at the Oriental Theatre, the show’s not extremely bad, it’s just regular bad. More intriguingly, it’s also proof that combining musical theater and franchise-style fantasy stories tends to bring out the worst aspects of both. You can only sit there so long listening to an actor — in this case, the winningly quirky Chris McCarrell — sing “I’m the Son of Poseidon” over and over again before you contract a serious case of the giggles.

‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’
★★
When: Through Jan. 13
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $25-$80
Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

He’s not wrong, though. Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon. And he’s not the only divine progeny on hand, either. In fact, he gets sent to Camp Half-Blood, a summer haven that’s filled to the brim with the beings. After surviving a minotaur attack and learning that his best friend and camp mate Grover (Jorrel Javier), is actually a satyr sent to protect him, Percy takes to his new life as a demigod somewhat grudgingly. It’s par for the course as pretty much everyone at Camp Half-Blood has mommy god or daddy god issues, including his new friend Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), the runaway daughter of Athena, and the charming yet embittered camp counselor, Luke (James Hayden Rodriguez), who takes Percy under his wing.

The plot thickens: When the gods suspect Percy of having stolen Zeus’s very special lightning bolt, Percy, Annabeth  and Grover embark on a cross-country quest to recover it from Hades, who they suspect is the real culprit. If they don’t succeed, a war will break out among the gods, of course. Like so many adaptations, the musical attempts to cram an entire novel’s worth of story into two streamlined hours, with the resulting feel of a Wikipedia summary set to song.

Really, though, it’s the choice by songwriter Rob Rokicki to make it a rock musical that lays bare the inherent silliness at hand — not just in “The Lightning Thief,” but in all rock musicals. You see, musical theater is earnest by nature, while rock music is often grounded in swagger and cool. Seldom can you bridge the two worlds without getting stranded between them, as is the case with Rokicki’s score.

Theoretically, adding fantasy into the mix would help ease the strain since it also requires an earnest suspension of disbelief. But “The Lightning Thief” proves the opposite. Percy Jackson being the son of Poseidon is fine; Percy Jackson singing about being the son of Poseidon is hilarious — even more so when he’s singing it as a “rock” tune.

Kristin Stokes (from left) Chris McCarrell and Jorrel Javier in the national touring production of "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical." | Jeremy Daniel

Kristin Stokes (from left) Chris McCarrell and Jorrel Javier in the national touring production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.” | Jeremy Daniel

Maybe that’s why the show is best when it’s leaning into its own ridiculousness, aided by director Stephen Brackett’s relatively lo-fi approach to tackling a grand fantasy epic. (Special props must be given for creative use of toilet paper.) The show’s strongest number, “D.O.A.,” which welcomes the gang into Hades, is a self-aware, over-the-top marvel — one that maximizes its seven-person cast’s natural charms by providing a good home for their constant mugging. Percy Jackson doesn’t need to be a musical, but it’s not half-bad as a musical comedy. Might as well make the laughs intentional.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.